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Fabric and buttons that have matches on the Orange card.

Fabric and buttons that have matches on the Orange card.

Having recently edited my fabric stash and fresh from revisiting David Allen’s penetrating questions about projects and next actions, I was primed to edit my button stash.  It’s grown an awful lot since I discovered button dealers in London selling treasures from the 1930s through ’50s, sometimes on their original cards.  Now I understand why you’d want to start with a button and design a whole garment around it.

Before that, for me, buttons were almost an afterthought.  I’d make the garment and then before making the buttonholes I’d bring the garment to the fabric store to find a button of the right size and kind of the right color and style.  I just made do with whatever I could find. And my button stash reflected that.  Aside from the magnificent vintage buttons from London, which I would definitely keep, I had leftover extra buttons from ancient projects,

Buttons awaiting evaluation

Buttons awaiting evaluation

buttons I’d bought for projects I never did start, buttons harvested from old garments, and odd castoffs from other people’s button jars.

Well, that wasn’t good enough anymore.  Buttons that don’t suit my purposes or preferences need to be put back into the great sewing supply stream to inspire someone else.

On a sunny Sunday afternoon I gathered together my 3-in-1 Color Tool,

3-in-1 Color Tool

3-in-1 Color Tool

IMG_1871 (460x345)

My pattern binders

fabric swatches, binders of photocopied pattern envelopes, and all my buttons to view in natural light.

I also had that page of sticky notes I call The Chart in front of me.  The Context and Individual columns have categories that prompt questions.

For instance, the Individual column asks, “Does this [fill in the blank] match up with my personality? Style? Fit? Silhouette? Most flattering colors? Physical characteristics? What I’m psychologically growing into?”

The Context and Individual columns of The Chart

The Context and Individual columns of The Chart

The Context column asks, “Does this [fill in the blank] match up with the occasion it’s being designed for? The activities? The roles? The physical conditions? The mood of the occasion? Other items in my wardrobe? Other sewing supplies? What occasions, roles, etc. I’m moving into?

I also had at hand David Allen’s questions:

  • “What’s your intention with this thing?”
  • “What’s the open loop?”
  • “What’s the commitment?”
  • “What’s the project?”
  • “What’s the successful outcome?”
  • “What’s the next step?”

Maybe all of this sounds overwrought and overthought. But actually, the setup took only minutes.

And I wanted to be sure to ask better questions to get better answers.  When I’ve started with the question “Should I keep this?” and answered with

  • “I bought that at the shop that was going out of business…”
  • “It was expensive!”
  • “It was a bargain!”
  • “I could use it…”
  • “That was a gift…”
  • “I couldn’t get rid of that!”
  • “I don’t know.”

these supplies end up not being used anyway.  No inspiration, no clearing of physical or mental space occur.

So I needed to break the feedback loop (if that’s the term I want) of canned answers by asking different questions.

Here is what I found.

About 90 percent of my buttons were definite keepers.  No further decision needed to be made.

For the remainders, color was usually the deciding factor.  If it was hard to characterize the color, I’d find the closest match on a 3-in-1 Color Tool card.

Finding the closest color matches

Finding the closest color matches

As with my fabrics, I was sometimes surprised that the best match was on one of my most flattering color cards.  If I’m going to use a button it’s because it will complement fabrics that flatter my coloring.  It was so interesting to see a button that looked neutral on its own cozy right up to various different colors it was paired with.  Color experts may be rolling their eyes at this obvious fact, but I still find this remarkable.

Chameleon-like buttons take on the attributes of the colors they're next to

Chameleon-like buttons take on the attributes of the colors they’re next to

Sometimes a button passed the color test but was eliminated for style.  Leather, plastic, mother of pearl, wood, and horn buttons that were too few or too big or small were more limited in their possibilities for my wardrobe, and I put most into the donation pile.

I go into an organizing project thinking I’ll just end up having a little less stuff, more space, and better order.  But I’m finding that asking the questions I listed above is yielding richer results that affect my outlook for the future. Orderliness might be the least valuable result. I’m taking stock of what matters to me and what I want to be responsible for.

When I asked David Allen’s questions, I had answers like this:

  • I am not committed to keeping buttons that aren’t a match for my preferences and purposes.
  • I am committed to making a beautiful wardrobe, and buttons are a part of that.
  • All my supplies should be organized.  My buttons are disorganized, discouraging me from using them.
  • I intend to have my buttons be easy to see and to use.
  • I intend to use my beautiful buttons, not let them sit unused in my basement for years.
  • I intend to design beautiful garments with buttons as the starting point.
  • Successful outcomes are an edited collection of buttons, buttons incorporated into my garments, and the garments part of a wardrobe that I enjoy wearing.
  • The next steps are bagging all the buttons I’ll keep, setting aside the donations for the Textile Center sale, and writing my post.

Notice: not a “should” or “could” or “would” in sight, and no past tense.

Some buttons being released back into the great sewing stream

Some buttons being released back into the great sewing stream

As I answered David Allen’s questions (in a mind map–very fun–that deserves its own post) I was amazed at what my fingers were tapping out.  You see, I love those vintage buttons from London.  (For lots of pictures of those, just search my name on Facebook and see my albums.)  And I claim that I’ll really use them all.  I believe that.  But for it to happen, I must commit and plan.  And it would be so easy to not commit and not plan, just subscribe to some fiction that I will.  I mean, who would know the difference?

It may seem like a very small thing, not to use some Art Deco buttons I brought home as a souvenir.  But I somehow think it’s a very big thing.  It’s a sneaky little way I can promise and fail to keep a promise to myself–not just to use a button but to use time and talents.

Some of the buttons I bought are on their original cards from the 1950s, if not earlier.

On their original card for decades

On their original card for decades

Imagine being a button attached to a card for sixty years or more, waiting to be used.  I saw scores of such cards on visits to vintage fairs and street markets.  I felt as if–this may sound strange–they were hostages waiting for their release.

Imagine, then, that I bring them back home only to prolong their captivity.

I don’t think  I anthropomorphize more than average, but those buttons…they’re nagging at me!


Isn’t it tempting to hold back some favorite supply–a fabric, or a bottle of wine, for that matter–for just the right moment?  That moment that never seems to come, though.  So things–and talents–end up not getting used.

I’m thinking that what Annie Dillard said in The Writing Life could be applied equally to sewing supplies.

One of the things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems to be good for a later place in the book or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now. The impulse to save something good for a better place later is the signal to spend it now. Something more will arise for later, something better.

Well.  I’m going to try to be more like that.  A good start came in today’s mail delivery.

Last week I decided to sew a winter-into-spring swing coat using a 1952 McCall’s pattern and stash fabric.  My two sewing expert friends and I found no big coat buttons in my stash that would work.  But research on Etsy found exactly the right size, color and number of big, rust-colored vintage buttons I needed.  I ordered another irresistibly odd set of buttons, in milk chocolate and white, from the same vendor, Peach Parlor.

Arrived today. The big ones are destined for a coat.

Arrived today. The big ones are destined for a coat.

Readers, I am committed to giving these buttons new homes.  Watch this space.